Kathleen stood in the driveway with her mother. They were looking at the gold Acura that belonged to her parents.
Her mother held out her hand, letting the keys dangle from her index finger.
“You’ll be careful,” she said, her voice soft, in the way that always made Kathleen want to sigh loudly.
“Yes, mom, I’ll be careful. I’m headed to a job interview for godsake.” She reached out for the keys but her mother’s hand closed around them again.
“And you won’t…I mean…” She gestured toward the back of the car where there was a fish symbol, a sticker that said, “Jesus Saves.”
“Won’t what?” Kathleen asked. She knew what her mother was worried about, that she’d be a jerk on the road, embarrass her – a fear not entirely unfounded considering she’d lost her license due to reckless driving – but she wanted to hear her mom say it out loud.
Instead, her mother shook her head and handed over the keys. “Nothing. Just be careful and come back safely. Good luck, honey.” She kissed Kathleen on the cheek and then straightened her sweater, smiled benignly. It was the smile that got to Kathleen, the one that said she was being tolerated (in Jesus’ name). She opened the door and threw her purse inside, climbed in before her mom could say anything else. She came to stand by the window, but Kathleen just nodded and smiled, yelled thanks to the rolled up glass as she began to drive away. In the rearview mirror her mother stood with one arm across her waist and the other raised as if to say goodbye. Kathleen tilted the mirror until she disappeared. Once she’d escaped the cul de sac and made it onto the main road, she felt herself relax a little. She turned on the radio and found the classical station. Ever since she quit smoking she’d found she liked the string instruments, the low, resonant voices you could sometimes feel vibrating in your chest, but it was still early and the station was playing all trumpets and horns, too bright and thin for her current mood. She switched the radio off and took a deep breath instead, breathing out her nerves, the negative energy, like she’d been learning on the yoga videos.
She turned onto Applegate, passed the Dairy Palace where she’d worked all through high school, the place she’d met Kyle, had her first kiss, smoked her first cigarette. She laughed. Kyle would get a kick out of her now, nice white button up, her hair pinned back, driving the Acura to a dentist’s office in hopes of a regular job – but he was long gone, probably out there making some other woman’s life miserable.
She took the exit onto the Interstate and began to merge. In her rearview mirror she saw a blue truck coming up fast and she gunned it, hoping to slip into the lane ahead, but she misjudged and the truck came up close on her bumper. Kathleen could see the man in the mirror, shouting at the back of her head. She looked back at the road. “Sor-ry,” she said, “get a grip, jerk.” She breathed deep again, let it all out.
When she looked up at the mirror again a minute later, the truck was still on her bumper. She slowed down just a hair to give him the message that it was time to back off, but he revved his engine, swerved to the right and came up beside her in the emergency lane. Shit. She kept her hands on the wheel, her eyes forward. She knew enough not to antagonize a guy like this. She needed to get over, get away from him, but it was the morning commute and the lanes were moving, but full. She felt her heart racing, her legs beginning to tremble. The guy was not letting it go. She put on her blinker and sped up a little, hoping to outrun him, looking for an opening to merge left, but he matched her speed. She dared a quick look at him. He was leaning part way out his window, shouting; she didn’t need to hear him to know what he was saying. He raised his hand to flip her off and then he pulled his steering wheel sharply to the left as if to ram her. She screamed and swerved into the next lane, felt the dull thud of her car connecting with the minivan beside her. Always in movie wrecks, there is the burst of the crash and then the screen goes black, but this wreck seemed to happen in slow time. She pressed her foot into the brake as hard as she could, but nothing was slowing her down and Kathleen watched in horror as she and the minivan, connected somehow, sped toward the traffic waiting ahead. She could hear her own screams, and then she was slammed against another car and she felt something sharp in her side and she was jerked forward hard. There was an explosion of light at the center of her sight and then everything did go black.
When she woke she was lying on a stretcher and there were people bent over her. A woman in an EMT’s uniform holding clear tubes, and a man, dressed the same, leaning across her, tucking a blanket around her legs. Two cops stood at her feet. They wore hats that were the same blue as the truck that had driven her into traffic and she started to cry. The taller one glanced over and wrote something in his notebook. The woman began stroking her arm, saying “you’ll be alright honey, you were really lucky” and she felt herself being lifted into what she guessed was an ambulance, but as she lay there, waiting to be taken to the hospital, she could hear one of the cops saying, “…revoked license…reckless driving…” and the other saying, “Mother says there’s history…” and she started to cry again. The woman had gone to the front of the ambulance so she lifted herself up on her elbows, wincing at the pain in her side, the stab of light behind her eyes. On the freeway there was a circle of flares and a cop directing traffic around the accident. A tow truck was pulling away the minivan, its right side folded in like an accordion and its windshield a blaze of shattered glass. There were two more cars snarled up along the median and behind them, the Acura. All she could see of it was its rear bumper, crumpled, the silver fish, the sticker, buried somewhere in its folds.
“Lay down, honey,” said the woman, coming up beside her. “You don’t want to open that wound again.”
“The other people? Were they hurt?” she asked, though her mouth was dry and she was afraid of the answer.
“You just rest for now,” the woman said and Kathleen felt her arms go cold and a panic fluttering in her throat.
“There was a blue truck. He almost hit me,” she said, but her voice sounded strange and she felt so very tired.
“I didn’t see a truck out there, honey. Just lay back.” Then the man came and pushed the doors shut and the woman was touching her hair and making shushing noises and Kathleen closed her eyes and let herself imagine she was home and it was her mother stroking her hair, the soft, familiar hand brushing her forehead, calmly assuring her, “It’s going to be alright, honey, just rest, it’s going to be alright.” For a moment she was a child again, unburdened, before the Dairy Palace, before Kyle, before rehab, before she failed at everything she’d set out to do, before she became herself, the type of woman that no one was ever going to believe, even when she was telling the truth.